Flaking Out: An Eczema Update

In the seven years since I published my first post about eczema, several people have written expressing interest in an update. I’m less inclined to blog about skin issues than I used to be, but since people seem to be itching for follow-up, here’s an update.

In answer to the, “Did it ever go away?” question: Yes! It took a long time and a lot of work, which I’ll talk about below, but it went away.

In answer to the unasked, “Did it stay away?” question: Alas! no. After nearly four years, it came back. But I blame myself, which I’ll talk about below as well.

How it went away:

After two years of trying lotions and potions and contortions with no lasting effect, I found out about the TQI Diet (aka To Quiet Inflammation Diet, aka Abascal Way, aka the Vashon Island Diet). Developed by Kathy Abascal*, it’s a way of eating that’s designed to reduce inflammation in the body. It consists of an initial period of strictly eliminating common inflammatory foods (e.g., dairy, sugar) followed by a testing phase to identify triggers specific to one’s individual body and to help develop a long-range eating plan particular to you and your needs.

One thing I like about the Abascal Way is its flexibility. The cornerstone is proportional eating: at least 2/3 of each meal or snack should be vegetables and/or fruits. What’s in the remaining 1/3 is up to the individual. After the Elimination Phase, you can eat most anything, provided it’s proportional, minimally processed, and works for you.

The Abascal Way didn’t work for me immediately. In fact, for the first several weeks, things got worse. My eczema spread, I was getting migraines weekly, and there were a couple of other symptoms I won’t list here. My spouse asked me why I didn’t quit if it wasn’t working. “I have no other options,” I said, and I stuck with it.

After about two months, it was like a switch got flipped. All of a sudden, everything was better. For the first time in two years, I had no eczema, no migraines. It was brilliant! Except for one day a week when I let myself have popcorn and whiskey, I never came off of the Elimination Phase, but it was well worth it.

That kept up with little indulgences (birthdays, travel) until last year when we moved to San Diego.

How it came back:

This is the sad part of the story, but it’s a sadness of my own creation. During the travel we did before the move followed by the move itself followed by the glee of being in San Diego, I let my Abascal habits slip.

In my defense, Abascal eating during travel is a significant challenge, and I’m weird with travel eating in the best of circumstances (I’m someone who loses weight on vacation, and not in a good way). But once we were in our new place, I didn’t have that excuse. I was still eating a healthy diet—no sweeteners, no gluten, no dairy, and I’d quit drinking alcohol entirely in March of 2017 (which is a topic for a different post)—but I wasn’t focused on proportional eating, and I ate popcorn and gluten-free toast much more often than once a week.

And so the eczema came back. Just a little bit at first, off and on, then more persistently. It was when I had my first migraine since 2015 that I knew I had to get back into the Abascal groove for real, but even with that, it’s been several months of false starts before I recommitted for real.

It’s been a week now of strict Abascal, and the eczema around my right eye has gotten much worse (bad enough that I will not be posting pictures of it, so you’ll have to trust me on this one). But I’m sticking with Abascal in the hopes that, like before, this is the “worse” before the “better.”

And that is my riveting eczema story, complete with cliffhanger ending.

*As far as I know, Kathy Abascal has no idea I’ve been on her diet nor that I’m writing about it now. I purchased all materials related to The Abascal Way, including the book and the cookbook, on my own at retail prices and without discounts. I mention it here only because it’s what I’ve done and what’s helped me. Your results, as they say, may vary.

Vacation Hangover

“The best part of vacation is coming home!”

Or so say many of my friends on social media. But it turns out I don’t share that sentiment

I used to. When we lived in California, I enjoyed our time away, but coming home really felt like coming home, and I appreciated being back in our little apartment. When we lived in Utah, I liked spending a week or so in humid weather—or in the case of winter travel, in better air quality—but was glad to be back to dry air and the comforting embrace of the mountains.

Now that we’re in Massachusetts, the closer the plane gets to New England, the worse my mood becomes. It’s possible that this is because we’ve been visiting places I like—road trips to Acadia, Prince Edward Island, and Asheville, North Carolina, flights to Joshua Tree National Park and San Diego and Salt Lake City. But that doesn’t quite account for my dark mood.

Other people say, “I enjoy being away but after about a week, I’m happy to be back.” Not me, at least not since we moved to Massachusetts. Even after two weeks away I want to keep on traveling.

Maybe I have a travel bug. It’s possible. I’ve never had one before. I’ve had a moving bug, but moving is different from traveling. It’s possible I’ve caught a bit of a travel bug and just don’t recognize it because I dislike flying and don’t like hotel rooms.

But it’s also possible that I just don’t like Massachusetts.

If I don’t leave, I can manage it okay. I focus on the native plants in my garden and the birds and insects that visit them rather than on the suburban inability to walk anywhere and the fact that Chipotle is the best restaurant in town. I focus on spotting and identifying flora and fauna on our hikes rather than on the Lyme- and babesiosis-carrying tick population. I focus on staying home and taking care of our house and children and monarch caterpillars rather than on the aggressive drivers, potholed streets, and rude populace.

But when I leave, I remember that there are other places to live and that in other places, there are lots of friendly people, not just employees at Trader Joe’s. When I leave the East Coast, my shoulders relax. I breathe easier. I’m more apt to converse with strangers, and they’re more apt to converse back in a kind manner. I know this doesn’t happen everywhere and that part of it is a result of the places I choose to visit (and because I’m white), but that doesn’t change the exhaustion I feel being back in the place where my house is.

I know this is an unpopular view among New Englanders. Particularly those who are from here defend the region fiercely should anyone dare to say it’s not the right fit for them. They’re not rude; they’re straightforward! The drivers are only aggressive because there are so many on the road! Doctors really understand Lyme disease now—well, most of them, and it only takes them about six months to finally diagnose it, and only about half of the people I know have had it! And I believe that New England really is a welcoming place—to people who’ve been here since the Mayflower landed. But for those not from here, it’s tough to break in.

Despite the arguments to the contrary and despite my valiant and exhaustive (and exhausting) attempts to find a place here, Massachusetts just isn’t my spot. But it’s where I am for the foreseeable future.

And that’s why I’m in a bad mood when I get back from vacation.

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Empathy and Privilege

I woke up on November 9th feeling a little bewildered, but not surprised. There were too many Trump yard signs in my blue state in the weeks leading up to the election for me to be surprised by the outcome. And with a little reflection, even the bewilderment lifted as I realized that this election outcome doesn’t change much for me. I’m white and heterosexual. I live in a blue state. I have a college education and although I don’t personally earn any money, my family’s income puts us firmly in the upper middle class. And as for the misogyny, that was no worse on November 9th than it was on November 8th. Today I can still live anywhere in the United States, just like I’ve always been able to. I can still use my passport and leave the country if I want to—and expect to be let back in—just like I’ve always been able to.

More than this, I’ve already been living my values, never as well as I’d like to, but always in that direction. I’ve been wary all along, watching my elected officials to see if they’re overstepping their authority and the powers granted them by the U.S. Constitution. This election doesn’t actually change that. It might end up giving me more to do, but it doesn’t change my level of alertness.

I also don’t believe that things would be all hunky-dory if Hillary Clinton had won. The hate and vitriol and violence, the ugly and dangerous expressions of racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia had already been unleashed. It’s possible that it would have been as bad if Clinton had won. Perhaps it would have been even worse because of the backlash against that election outcome.

The challenge for me remains the same either way: To be aware of the oppression going on around me without making it about me. Because I retain all of the privilege I had before the ballots were cast. I will continue to challenge myself to be aware of inherent bias in my thoughts and behaviors just as I was before. I will continue to be ready to step in if I see violence or mistreatment of another person, just as I was—or fervently hoped I was—before. Read More

A Sinking Feeling

I fear that I’m not cut out for homeownership.

Back in our early 20’s, friends told my spouse and me about why they loved buying a house versus renting. “You get to pick out the paint colors and the appliances and make everything just the way you want it!” they said.

My spouse and I just blinked at them when they said things like this.

I don’t know what my spouse’s excuse is (I think it’s just a combination of not caring and not liking to spend money), but I grew up in military housing. The walls were painted Navajo White. The floors were asbestos-backed tile. The appliances worked, and if they didn’t, my mom called the base handyman who came by and had a cup of coffee at our dining table after replacing the dishwasher drain pump.

With as often as I’ve changed dwellings in my life, I’ve come to think of appliances, paint colors, flooring, and kitchen counter materials as interesting (and sometimes happy) surprises. I go into a new home and discover what’s unique about it. The idea that I can—or should want to—customize my home is absolutely foreign to me.

In my late 20’s on the playground at my daughter’s preschool, I sat trying to arrange my vacant expression into something resembling cordial interest as the other parents animatedly discussed flooring options and the relative merits of different kitchen counter materials.

 

CIMG0186When we bought our first house in Salt Lake City in our 30’s, we made no changes to it except to replace the broken kitchen faucet. Two years later, we bought our second and current house in Massachusetts. We hoped to get away without making any changes to this house, either, but that wasn’t to be. First the kitchen faucet failed. Then my toddler drew all over the wallpaper in the dining room. Then we discovered mildew behind the wallpaper in the bathrooms (who puts wallpaper in the bathroom?). Then one of the 50-year-old toilets failed. Then both of the 50-year-old bathroom faucets failed, and one of them is a no-longer-made slant-back faucet and so we can’t replace it without replacing the sink.And if we’re replacing the sink, we may as well replace the failing light in the aged medicine cabinet, which means we have to replace the medicine cabinet.

Oh, my God.

The need to choose items for my home causes me great stress. In the past year and a half, despite our intention to not make any improvements to our home, I’ve found myself picking out paint colors for three rooms, selecting three bathroom faucets and a kitchen faucet, comparing washers and dryers, picking a dishwasher, buying a bathroom sink and vanity, and shopping for a medicine cabinet and vanity light. Facebook has been giving me nothing but home improvement ads for months.

I hate being forced to care about these things, but I also feel a lot of pressure to make the right choice. This results in irritability. And irritability results in yelling. And yelling results in stomping around and storming from the house for a fast, furious walk around the neighborhood, which puts more steps on my FitBit but puts my children on edge.

And add to this that home improvement stores give me hives.

Okay, so they don’t really give me hives. But they make me feel as disoriented as casinos do. Both places are completely cut off from natural light so that night and day lose all meaning. It’s like being in an alternate dimension and the only way out is handing my credit card to the cashier for items that I have no idea if I’m going to like once they’re installed in my home.

Today I bought a vanity and sink and a vanity light for over top of a to-be-purchased medicine cabinet. This was all excruciating, and not only because in order to pick out the light fixture, I had to stare up at glaring lamps ten feet over my head and try to imagine them in my little sunlit bathroom.

God, I hate home improvement.

And I still have to select grout.

What We Have Here is Failure To Communicate

I get nervous when I talk to people. I have a naturally high baseline anxiety level—it’s just how I’m wired—and I know this is a big part of my interpersonal nervousness. But part of it is also a learned anxiety because from long experience I know there’s a high likelihood that when I open my mouth, I’m going to be misunderstood. My palms get sticky, pit stains bloom, and my heart flutters, especially when I’m talking to teachers, plumbers, hotel concierges, dental hygienists, my in-laws, massage therapists, other parents, telephone solicitors—

and doctors. Read More

Twenty-First Century Girl

I first became a Girl Scout more than 30 years ago. Each week, I walked through our northern California neighborhood to my Brownie meetings in my brown jumper, my beanie bobbie-pinned to my hair, a quarter in the dues pouch on my belt. Every year we would camp out and every year it would rain and we would complain about cleaning latrines, but we also sang silly songs, played silly games, and learned about native plants and how to build a fire even if the firewood’s wet. There was the year that it snowed while we were tent camping and when we got home, we found out that the Boy Scouts had gone home early and the Girl Scouts had stuck it out.

When we weren’t camping, my fellow Girl Scouts and I enjoyed doing service projects, hiking with naturalists, designing activities for younger girls, learning how to build an oven out of cardboard and tin foil, and taking trips to other states. Girl Scouts gave me my first chances to speak in public, and helped me see that being silly isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Girl Scouts helped me experience what it means when women and girls stand by each other. In Girl Scouts I developed confidence in myself and leadership skills that have served me well in both my personal and professional life.

I have been a Girl Scout in four different states. I went through every level of Girl Scouts as a girl, and I always knew that, if I had a daughter, she would be a Girl Scout, too.

Now I’m in my second year as a leader with my daughter’s troop. In the years between my membership as a girl and my membership as a leader, Girl Scouts has made efforts to update the program to appeal to today’s girls.

Here’s what they came up with:

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This is one of the incentives my daughter received for selling a certain number of candies, nuts, and magazine subscriptions during the Fall Product Sale. When I was a girl in the program, we didn’t have a Fall Product Sale, and the incentives we got for cookie sales were generally patches, animal-themed tchotchkes, logo t-shirts, and—for the really big sellers—credits to go on Girl Scout adventure trips.

Clearly, since I was a girl in the program the organization has realized that those kinds of things don’t motivate girls to sell stuff. So, they asked themselves, what do girls these days care about? What do the women leaders of tomorrow need more of?

Faced with such questions, the national organization came to a realization: nature is all around us.  I can look out my window right now and see ten or twelve birds at the feeder in my yard. Girls don’t need to have nature pointed out to them.

You know what’s not all around us? Shopping malls. There are squirrels hiding nuts all over my flower beds, but I have to drive almost two miles to get to the nearest shopping mall.

And shopping is awesome! Looking at ads, seeing the latest trends, choosing the outfit that will make us be noticed and popular and pretty. It’s what it means to be a woman in America!

This is a message our girls aren’t getting enough of from mainstream media. How are our girls going to know how great shopping is unless Girl Scouts points it out to them? Study after study shows that girls are severely deficient in positive messages about consumerism, and Girl Scouts is filling that void and helping our daughters develop a love of shopping from the age of five (the age that girls can join Girl Scouts nowadays). After all, who needs nature when you can shop?

And you know what else we can do? We can give the girls a pinewood derby, just like the Cub Scouts has. Only because everyone knows that girls don’t like building things we have to make it more appealing. I know! Let’s call it a “Powder Puff Derby”! Girls these days need to be reminded that they can do anything the boys can do as long as they do it cutely! (Double-bonus that it teaches them about cosmetics application. Goodness knows my daughter won’t be learning about that from me!)

Kudos to you, Girl Scouts, for leading my daughter and the rest of her generation boldly into the 21st century!

Regional Differences

The front-desk lady at the dance studio made my daughter cry.

I was in the back observing ten minutes of a dance class I’m considering for our son (yes, this is the same son who wears a sports bra; that’s a different post), and my spouse was with our kids in the waiting area. He tells the story like this:

Our daughter asked, “Can I go back and watch the class with my mom?”

The lady answered. “No. That’s just for your mom.”

Our daughter started crying.

“Why did she cry? Was the woman angry with her?” I asked.

“I couldn’t tell,” he said. “She might have been angry, or it might just have been the accent.” Read More

On Keeping My Dumb Phone

My spouse decided this week to take advantage of a work discount program and get a smartphone, and I don’t like it.

My phone has an animation of an aquarium. What does your phone have?

My phone has an animation of an aquarium. What does your phone have?

I have the Sanyo Katana flip phone I got for free in 2006. I know how to use it, and I know how to forget about it in my purse so that whenever I need it it’s gone dead and I have to plug it into the car charger in order to use it. And this is on a phone that holds a charge for a week. If I had a smartphone, I’d have to devote an entire to-do-list line item to remembering to recharge it.

In addition, smartphones…

Promote antisocial tendencies.

I’m not even talking about the way everyone’s face is stuck in a screen every moment their eyes aren’t actively engaged in seeing something else. I’m talking about how no one’s allowed to just have a conversation anymore. When someone says, “Who’s the guy who did the painting of the apple in front of the guy’s face?” there’s no more, “Oh, isn’t that Miró? A friend sent me a postcard with that painting on it one time, and she was really into Miró at the time.” There’s no more, “No, I think it’s Manet. I watched a t.v. documentary about him back in the late 90’s.”

There’s no more of that kind of exchange because someone’s always got a smartphone to fact-check. I have nothing against facts, but really, the point isn’t who the heck painted the picture of the apple-face guy (Magritte, for those of you without smartphones), it’s the discussion, the human connection that’s destroyed by a hand-held smart(ass)phone.

Discourage research and forward-planning.

Now that everyone can just e-mail or text each other all the time and look up restaurants on the fly, people just head out with only the barest skeleton of a plan. Chaos and anarchy just don’t work for me. I want to know where we’re going and when we plan to get there, and I want a half-dozen paper maps to consult if plans go awry.

But on the flip side, smart phones also…

Discourage independent discovery.

My spouse was making a beer run this weekend in an unfamiliar town in Maine, so he borrowed our friend’s smartphone to find the beer store our friend had looked up. Turns out he didn’t need the phone because there’s a little beer store right on the main road on the way to the other beer place, which he’d have figured out even without the phone.

But even if smartphones weren’t evil, I wouldn’t want one because I have no willpower. I have lots of willpower in other areas of my life. I can rock an elimination diet like nobody’s business, but I can’t help but check my e-mail during every remotely spare moment I have and jump down every rabbit hole I encounter along the way. And this is just with my laptop. If I had a smartphone, I would spend my entire life in Alice in Wonderland. Within two weeks, I’d be sitting on a giant mushroom smoking a hookah and giving passersby tangential Wikipedia-inspired responses to their direct questions.

And where would that leave my children?

Wherever it is, I know they’ll end up there eventually because it’s clear to me that smartphones are as inevitable as they are evil. Chances are, my face will be bathed in the bluish glow of a tiny screen by next summer. Until then, I’ll just keep complaining.

Written as part of the yeah write weekly challenge.

Hope, Despair, and Car-Light Living: An Earth Day Post

English: Map of Laputa and Balnibarbi for the ...

English: Map of Laputa and Balnibarbi for the 1726 edition of Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver’s travels into several remote nations of the world (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift’s classic satirical novel, Lemuel Gulliver travels to the city of Lagado on the island of Balnibarbi. Here the people have embraced a thoroughly intellectual manner of problem-solving. New innovations will improve building, manufacture, agriculture, and every pursuit in which the city might engage. Among the benefits promised: “one Man shall do the Work of Ten; a Palace may be built in a Week…all the Fruits of the Earth shall come to Maturity at whatever Season we think fit to chuse, and increase an Hundred Fold more than they do at present.” Trouble is, these methods haven’t been perfected, and the people are suffering for it, going without adequate food and safe shelter as they wait for the innovations to catch up with their needs.

Like the people of Lagado, we are suffering for the imperfections of our schemes for improvement except that we’re suffering with asthma, cancer, obesity, heart disease, ailing communities, disconnection from friends and family, depression, and a host of other afflictions that result from polluted air and water and habits borne of the automobile-dependent communities in which we’ve trapped ourselves.

Also like the people of Lagado, we persist in our current, imperfect modes of living. “Instead of being discouraged, [the people of Lagado] are Fifty Times more violently bent upon prosecuting their Schemes, driven equally on by Hope and Despair.”

Most discussions about the need for change towards a more sustainable and healthier way of living address our intellect. We hear a lot of numbers, projections about how many years of fossil fuels we have left, how much we need to reduce carbon emissions so that we’re only moderately screwed rather than comprehensively screwed. But numbers don’t address those things that keep us in our patterns of behavior: Hope and Despair. Hope and Despair live in our hearts; addressing our intellect isn’t going to get at our hearts.

In order to help people change, we need a direction. We need to get a taste of a better way of living so that we develop a craving for it, and if we crave it enough and can envision it clearly enough and in large enough numbers, we’ll be able to make a change.

Right now, people in most parts of the United States cannot envision a safe way to get to the places we need to go—work, grocery stores, schools, parks, libraries—without an automobile. Walking to school, biking to work, taking the bus or the train are simply not options from most of the neighborhoods of most of the people I know, including my own. We can’t just say, “Drive less,” and expect people to be able to do that easily—or at all.

My family is a one-car family, but this didn’t happen spontaneously, and it didn’t happen because of some deeply-held conviction about our role in helping the environment. But once we experienced it, we loved it. We became committed to it, and we sought it out each time we moved.

Living now in the Boston suburbs, we’re still a one-car family, but we’ve compromised our values in some pretty significant ways. We came here committed to car-light living, but for those already entrenched in a car-dependent way of living, there are extraordinary, sometimes intractable barriers to making changes in the direction of car-light living. And for so many people, they’ve never had the benefit of seeing just what living car-light can be like.

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What if they could feel the pleasure of walking in the open air to the grocery store or to school or to baseball practice (without needing to walk in the street)?

What if they could experience the healthful rush of biking to work or school in the early morning (without worrying about being hit by a car)?

What if they could reduce the amount of time they spent at work by telecommuting from a commuter train (without needing to drive fifteen miles to get to a train station and then take 2.5 hours of travel to get to their destination)?

What if they could bike with their children to a summer concert in the park? What if they could walk to dinner at a local restaurant without feeling the need to don reflective safety vests? What if they could spend 20 minutes commuting and get their daily workout at the same time? What would they be freed up to do if they bought only one tank of gas each month?

Car-light living isn’t just about the environment. Moving about our community without a car increases the odds of interacting with our neighbors and strengthens community ties. It allows for a more intimate experience of the place where we live and helps us to feel more connected to it both physically and spiritually. It doesn’t just promote healthier bodies, healthier communities, and a healthier environment—it’s really, really fun and fulfilling.

If people could get a clear vision of What Might Be, could they develop such a craving for it that they could band together and make it happen?

I’m probably too idealistic. Even if it were possible (which it probably isn’t), maybe experiencing these things would not have the profound effect on others that it has had on me and my spouse, but I think it would be more likely to encourage people out of the malaise of Hope and Despair than feeding them numbers. Were there a way to bypass the intellect and appeal to the heart, I think that’s when we would find people rising up and saying, “This! This is how we want to live! This is how we want our children to live!” and saying it loud enough and in large enough numbers that it would just have to happen.

Okay, yes. I am too idealistic. But I’m just not willing to accept the Hope-and-Despair alternative.